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Taking the Human Mind Two Standard Deviations Above the Norm.

In Defense of Brain Porn

Why the neuro-doubters are scared.

In a New York Times Op-Ed piece, Alissa Quart, takes issue with the proliferation of what she terms “bad neuroscience.” The immediate object of her scorn is Naomi Wolf’s book, “Vagina,” but the bigger target is the expansion of neuroscience into places that it is apparently unwanted. Quart correctly points out that there is an anonymous army of bloggers ready to take aim not only at what they consider bad neuroscience but what they also consider bad popularizations of neuroscience. Quart herself applauds the backlash against “brain porn.”

Well, as a neuroscientist who works between disciplines (I helped found the Society for Neuroeconomics), I am here to defend brain porn. I wholeheartedly embrace the use of neuroscience in every possible way to figure out what makes us human. No element of art, literature, culture, or religion should be spared. The social scientists and philosophers have had their crack at it. Quart says that I am part of “a larger cultural tendency in which neuroscientific explanations eclipse historical, political, economic, literary and journalistic interpretations of experience.” But, after two thousand years, what have we really learned from these disciplines about what makes humans tick and why we do what we do? Can literary theory explain my taste in literature? How well has economics done in solving the financial crisis? If political theory is so great, why did the Republicans get it so wrong this year? You see, straw men are easy to set up and knock down.

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The crux of the argument against neuroscience is that it can’t explain the human experience, and those that attempt to make the jump between brain and the ineffable are criticized for their simplistic extrapolations. But rather than criticizing these authors, we should be grateful for their courage. Of course, we are a long way from linking the firings of neurons to human experiences like being in love, or having a religious experience. But does anyone seriously doubt that those things exist in our minds? If not in our brains, then where does human experience live? Creative authors like Naomi Wolf spur scientists like me to figure out what is going on in our heads. Why should I trust someone’s particular theory when I can design an experiment and collect real data?

The data is the thing. And this is something that Quart and the neuro-doubters seem to miss. For the first time in the history of humanity, we can collect data about brain activity while an individual is experiencing something. While we may disagree about its meaning, the data are real. And that is a scary thought if you’re on the wrong end of an MRI with only your theory to protect you. 

Gregory Berns, Ph.D., M.D., is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia.

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